An aerial photo shows the wide-spread devastation in the wake of the levee breaks around New Orleans. The strength of the moving water moved a barge, shown in the right, center area of the photograph. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)
Author of Survival and Death in New Orleans, Patrick Sharkey (2007), looked specifically at data on New Orleans residents that perished during Katrina in an attempt to look at the communities that were most affected by this unfortunate disaster.
New Orleans is one of the few predominantly Catholic cities in the United States and statuary of Mary is prevalent throughout the region making it easy for Nicaraguan immigrants to demonstrate the faith that is so central to their culture. After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, many photographs were taken of the Virgin still standing among the debris or in front of an empty slab where a home once stood. After sharing a traditional Nicaraguan meal prepared for the interview, Mina Lanzaz discussed the veneration of Mary as culture in great detail. She explained that their lives, as Nicaraguans, as New Orleanians, are entirely intertwined with faith. As the only child of two Nicaraguan immigrants, she was raised with the customs but never participated in a La Purisima that was organized for the public. Berta Lanzaz, Mina's mother, explains that they pray the novena that is the reason for La Purisima. They do not feel the need for the event to worship Mary. Dispersion and a busy lifestyle are also factors for not attending the event.
After several hours of mingling with numerous officials and exchanging thoughts and ideas, I decide to finish-up and find somewhere to grab a bite to eat … breakfast bars can only take you so far. I go back outside into the bright sunlight and as I get to my truck, I look across at a news crew taping a segment, while a group of four of what appears to be tourists (with cameras) stroll behind them — all directly beneath the tower with the worst wind damage. Looking up, I can literally see several broken panes flexing in the slight breeze many stories above them. Unaware of the danger, I consider warning them, but realize that as soon as I drive off there will be another group of people doing the same thing and so on, until the area is secure. Hopefully, it will be done before the next front moves through that is expected in a few days, with strong winds. I half-jokingly consider creating a few makeshift signs, saying simply “HEADS UP” and posting it near the entrance to each building, but decide to move on instead. I wander around the downtown briefly enjoying the beautifully unique and colorfully diverse architecture this city offers. Like its people, it seems no two buildings are the same, yet has something of substance to say in an almost spiritual repose. Here I am now on Bourbon Street. Since I’ve never visited New Orleans, it is the first time I have laid eyes on the main attraction spot for tourists. The street is empty … devoid of any sign of human life, as far as you can see. I have to get out and snap a few pictures as I stroll down the street, taking in the invisible character of an atmosphere of good times and good tunes that has fallen silent with a hush that is almost deafening. My footsteps are the only noise being made as the sound of flights above me momentarily falls still. This scene reminded me of another old Hollywood flick from the 70s — The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston. He plays a scientist fighting for survival in a city wiped-out by a biological agent — all the buildings are left standing, but the people are gone … except for, of course, a few zombies hell-bent on killing him. I wonder after taking my next photo how many people have a shot of a completely deserted Bourbon Street. It has to be a one-in-a-million photograph.
For the most part, Nicaraguan immigrants have assimilated to American and Southeast Louisiana culture. Unlike other immigrant groups that established village-like enclaves in the region, the Nicaraguans dispersed and made their home among the general population. The organizers of La Purisma share that they believe the area is very accepting which made it easier for them to make it their home as well as stay connected to their roots but that they needed to be connected to the people from their country. This was their motivation for starting the La Purisima and La Griteria event at St. Jerome Catholic Church. Martha explains, "We would go to the church and see others. It is important to who you are. It is important to be together." Anyone familiar with the vibrancy of New Orleans also knows that it is a place where colorful culture and celebrations are welcome and thrive. The city is Creole: it is a place where white is not necessarily European and black is not necessarily African. The native people of the city are more diverse than the U.S. Census classification measures. Many people of color are the mixing of race and ethnicity, including French, Spanish, Native Americans, and Africans (slave and free people of color from the Caribbean). As mentioned earlier, La Purisima is unique to the Nicaraguan culture, but it is easy to understand how its celebration is welcome in Southeast Louisiana. Although the area had a relatively low rate of Latinos before Hurricane Katrina, Nicaragua and Southeast Louisiana share similarities between the Creole and Catholic populations. In many ways, the Nicaraguan immigrants blend well into this area as they too also come from the merging of European settlers, indigenous people, and enslaved Africans. They are also predominantly Catholic which helped make the transition to their new home.
The long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina is still unknown. Cities are organic places that change over time, but disaster changes them instantly. It is safe to say that no one living in Southeast Louisiana emerged from the destruction and aftermath an unchanged person. Throughout the region, families found themselves scattered while neighborhood groups formed cohesive tribes for rebuilding. As Louisianans sought higher ground, to take a breath, and assess the damage to their world, Latino immigrant workers arrived en-masse to fill the recovery labor needs. It is assumed that many of them will move on when the work subsides but many have already found Southeast Louisiana to be a welcoming place where they can freely celebrate their heritage within an already rich culture.
According to the most recent census in 2000, 3685 Nicaraguan immigrants live in Louisiana. Approximately 80% resided in Southeast Louisiana and nearly 2300 in Jefferson Parish. Jefferson Parish is the largely suburban area that is a substantial geographical and population portion of the New Orleans metropolitan area. Before Hurricane Katrina, the metro area's population was estimated to be 1.2 million. Comparatively, this made the Nicaraguan population quite small and the compiled Latino population of the area was only around 6%. As a major port city, New Orleans and Central America had close ties for many years. One of the significant links was the United Fruit Company, which imported tropical fruits to the United States. Many of the Central American workers sent their children to boarding school in New Orleans to provide them with an American education. Even so, the area did not draw Nicaraguans in large numbers, other than those who came in three distinct waves. The initial group was during the 1950s and 1960s. These were mostly from the Atlantic Coast region and many of them were associated with trade companies. The second wave was mostly comprised of urban populations leaving Nicaragua to escape the Revolution and Civil War that began in 1979. The majority of refugees went to California and Miami. Those who had ties to the New Orleans area more easily immigrated there. The last wave was in 1998 when people left Nicaragua and Honduras to escape the ravages of Hurricane Mitch. Again, those with connections to others already living in the area helped draw them to Southeast Louisiana.
From police officers to the court systems in New Orleans Hurricane Katrina caused travesties of justice throughout the city affecting all of the residents who relied and counted on their government to uphold their safety and rights....
Due to the costly destruction that the city of New Orleans faced after Katrina, they must now find a way to alleviate the blighted properties from their environment and also face the challenges....
During these times, it is impossible to discuss Southeast Louisiana populations without acknowledging those displaced by Hurricane Katrina and those who are choosing to make new homes elsewhere. One wonders how they will practice their culture and heritage as they assimilate in their new geography. The Narvaez' share that because they were forced to leave their home, they held more tightly to their traditions as they settled into their new life. They explain that the people most involved with the organized La Purisima are those who left Nicaragua due to the revolution. Martha says it simply, "When you have to flee, you need something to hang onto." They can now easily travel to Nicaragua to connect to their roots but have come to consider New Orleans home. They love the culture of the place but they have not lost their heritage among it. Much of this is due to La Purisima and the opportunity it presents to immerse themselves in Nicaraguan traditions if even for a few hours.
Hurricane Katrina proved to be a destructive storm with devastating force that nobody was prepared for, and physically devastated many by taking both lives and homes. Where the physical devastation ended, the psychological devastation began that plagued adults and even more intensely, adolescents. Posttraumatic stress disorder and serious emotional disturbance are two of the most prevalent physiological disorders that children faced after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Many children who were afflicted by these disorders could not find professional help, which suggests that the recovery resources for victims of Hurricane Katrina are exceptionally limited.